Where Do We Go From Here?
It’s been a demoralising last few weeks.
As I hinted at in my last blog, I’ve gone through with my threat. I sat at home and watched both the Hearts League Cup game and the Dinamo Zagreb Europa League group stage games on television after cancelling the direct debit scheme that would have sent me tickets for those games automatically.
Actually, they still did. As if to illustrate the omnishambles that is Celtic Football Club these days, my cancellation wasn’t put through properly and they still debited my account for both games. Only after I physically took the tickets into the ticket office, along with a copy of the email from them confirming that they had cancelled it before either draw had even been made, did they accept their mistake and refund me for them.
There’s been other demoralising things going on as well, from reluctantly cancelling my Golf membership to the Scottish independence referendum, but I’d rather focus on Celtic for the time being.
Watching the Hearts and Dinamo Zagreb games at home has been all nice and cosy in the warmth of my own house, but it seems wrong. I want to be at the games, but nothing I said in my last blog has changed. I still maintain that those running Celtic have had enough of my money, and I’m clearly not alone given half the stadium was shut on a big European night, so the question becomes “what needs to change at Celtic for that attitude to change?”
Well, maybe the easier question to begin with is “what doesn’t need to change?”
It’s been encouraging to see the club trying their best to get safe standing introduced at Celtic Park. It’s pretty clear to me that everyone at the club sees it as something that will be of benefit, and only Glasgow City Council kicking it into the long grass as they try to suggest that it’s something for the Scottish Parliament to debate has prevented it from going ahead. If there’s one area where the club are listening to the supporters then it’s this one.
I could talk about the team on the park, but to be honest that has never been the issue. I’ve backed Celtic through good times and bad. How successful Celtic are has absolutely no bearing whatsoever on my level of support. My mood, undoubtedly, but not my support! I’m still backing Deila for now, and hopefully he can turn things around and get Celtic playing the way he clearly wants us to play. I’m pretty sure I want them to play the same way after all.
I’m happy that the Celtic Foundation are heading in the right direction as far as charity goes. Tony Hamilton is a good man to have in charge of that and there’s no doubt that’s heading in the right direction. It could really do without interference from the rest of the club right enough. I’m still pissed off that they said nothing about the Green Brigade’s Foodbank collection initiative last year which can only be attributed to pettiness given that relations between the club and the Green Brigade were at an all time low at the time. But that aside, the rescheduled kick off of the Hamilton match a couple of weeks ago to clash with the Great Scottish Run which the Foundation had been pushing was farcical.
Clearly then communication is something that badly needs dealt with at the club. This is probably the top priority for me. At a time when it’s never been easier to talk to the supporters thanks to social media, Celtic’s customer relations are an utter shambles. John Paul Taylor as the Supporters Liaison Officer is an inspired appointment, but over the last year since his appointment it’s seemed to me that the club see him as a buffer. If he’s talking to the supporters, everyone else doesn’t need to talk to them.
Which might actually be fine if he had any power. But as far as I can see, he doesn’t. He puts himself on the front line, tallies up all the complaints, filters requests about tickets and merchandise and other such things to the relevant department for them to deal with and… that’s about it. Now, I can’t tell you everything that goes on there, you’d have to ask John Paul Taylor himself, but that’s my impression of it. I’m sure he’s putting in some good procedures, but on the face of it he’s looking more and more like a scapegoat to keep us fans away from the people who actually have the power to change things at the club.
The moved kick off time was a perfect example of how this system doesn’t work. Someone high up at Celtic seemed to think moving the kick off from 3pm to 1pm would be a good idea. Someone who probably wanted to be home with their family earlier on a Sunday given what was said in official releases from the club about the change. That’s fair enough, but all that actually happened was that said high up person asked our SLO to find out what the supporters might think about that, which he did. He quickly asked representatives of the Celtic Supporters Association and the Affiliation of Celtic Supporters Clubs – historically the two main groups that you would ask for supporters opinions – and both of them pretty much said “seems a good idea in theory but we’d need to ask our members”.
Which was then filtered back to our high up person who heard “good idea”. 8 days before kick off, the time was moved.
No consideration for anyone who had made arrangements to attend the match who now had to hastily rearrange them, which for a club who have supporters in Ireland is not an easy or cheap thing to do. No consideration for those taking part in the Great Scottish Run, some of whom were doing so in the name of our own charity Foundation. No consideration for anyone who might take their kids to play football on a Sunday morning as is the traditional time throughout the West of Scotland and probably beyond.
Now, I’m not saying John Paul Taylor is blameless in this. Asking the Association and the Affiliation is a very pre-internet thing to do. They’ve never represented me in anything, and probably never will. I’m not alone in that either. 20 years ago they were the best way to gauge supporter opinion, but with message boards and social media you could very quickly gauge supporters opinion outside of these bodies – and of course you could still ask the Association and the Affiliation as well! That still won’t gauge the feeling of all supporters as not all of the Celtic support are online, but since the issue here was to get a very quick answer to a question then social media would have been the very thing. It’s pretty evident that neither the Association nor the Affiliation could get the quick answer that was needed after all.
Mind you, Celtic’s social media seems to have a mind of it’s own. The official account is, quite frankly, an embarrassment. In recent weeks they’ve started spamming timelines with things like “Fan Friday”. Okay, I’m all in favour of interacting with the supporters, but all that really does is make me want to turn off retweets as my timeline becomes overwhelmed by it. But try getting them to retweet something useful like the Foodbank drive this year, they won’t do it.
On top of that we get coverage of youth matches, press conferences, and even the weather at Celtic Park. Now, the first two I’m fine with. They should be covered by the club, but personally I’d given them their own dedicated twitter account. But the weather? Come on, I really don’t care if it’s foggy at Celtic Park in the middle of the week. In fact, neither do the players since they’ll be a Lennoxtown for training. You only need to look at the replies these tweets get to see how pissed off people are getting about them. The fact they’re coming after poor results doesn’t help at the moment of course.
Ultimately, someone needs to take overall control of liaising with the supporters. Some kind of communications strategy would be nice, one that the supporters were actually privy to preferably. And I don’t just mean a proper complaints procedure and better social media interactions. They’re good, but what we really need is a mechanism for the supporters to properly engage with those who run the club. It’s all good and well when they ask a question or we have a specific complaint to make, but what about if I have general point to make about the current direction club? It’s all good and well me blogging about it, but it’s not like the club will read it!
They did try this already with a fans’ forum. A selected audience of supporters was handpicked to meet with the club, only for this to be quickly broken up again soon after. Why? Well, no one wants a handpicked audience for one thing. It’s no use if lots of supporters can quickly turn round and say “they don’t represent me, where’s my say?” I’m actually all in favour of these forums, but they need to be more open – or at the very least the supporters need open access to the representatives that are going to them so that any Celtic supporter who wants to get their point across can do so. These meetings would also need to be recorded so that there’s evidence that points were put across. A free for all, anyone can turn up, meeting might be preferable but it might also be hard to manage. The important point is that it’s open to all in some form.
However, I doubt that was the only problem. I suspect that even a few of those who were handpicked for the forum were telling a few home truths that those running the club didn’t want to hear. Well, tough. It’s our club, you’re only the custodians as you’re so fond of telling us. If you’re hearing things you don’t want to hear, then either you’re doing the wrong thing or you haven’t successfully argued your case for doing them.
Which probably brings me to my next point. The top level of Celtic is long overdue a clearout. Peter Lawwell has been the Chief Executive since 2003 and, with the odd reasonably successful blip, we’ve been going backwards since he took over. I don’t actually think it’s his fault, I’m fairly sure Dermot Desmond has him running the club to a strict budget and to a certain extent that is right to do. But the fact remains that he makes a hell of a lot of money from the club while he does so – far more than the Scottish market in which we operate can really afford. We may have to live within a budget given the climate we operate in as far the footballing side of the business is concerned, but as far as the top jobs at Celtic go we’re still paying top whack.
And for what? Leaving aside the football aspects of the business, what has Peter Lawwell actually grown in his time at the club? From what I’ve seen of our accounts, the football side of the business props up the rest which runs at a loss. Basically, if we don’t do it on the field then you can forget about doing it elsewhere. Okay, so the football side of things is the most important, and you can’t split the business up into segments like that, but that doesn’t mean the other aspects making a loss should be ignored completely. They must have targets somewhere along the line! Sadly I suspect Peter Lawwell’s ambitions are to get into power in the football governing bodies. He’s already got his foot in the door at both the SPFL and the SFA, and I’ve yet to see what good he does there. The SPFL has been without a sponsor for a year and a bit now after all, and the SFA are busy fleecing their own fans at precisely the wrong time – see my last blog!
But Lawwell is not the only board member that’s been there for a long time. Tom Allison, 2001. Brian Wilson, 2005. Ian Livingston, 2007. Dermot Desmond, 1995. Now I don’t know much about non-executive directors and how long they should be there, but I’ve seen it suggested by those that do that 3-5 years is probably about right. Only Ian Bankier fits that bill, and even he’s now been there for three years. It’s high time the Celtic board stopped being an old pals act and brought in some truly refreshing ideas. That won’t happen while they’re handpicking their friends.
I’d actually like to see a fan-elected representative on the board, but I’d like to see it done properly. The Celtic Trust’s idea of a mechanism that lets the fans vote on just anyone doesn’t make sense to me. It would make far more sense if the fans – possibly through the trust – specifically identified a strong Celtic supporting businessman that they thought could deliver those fresh ideas. Surely between us all we know someone that might fit that bill? Identify them, nominate them, and lets see the board try to knock that back. If they’re a strong candidate then they’ll find it very hard to justify knocking it back. Although I wouldn’t put it past them, but that’s what the AGM is for.
In an ideal world, I’d like to see Celtic PLC reorganised once more. Too few people have too much power, as is evident any time an AGM comes around. It doesn’t matter what the fans think, the board get what they want regardless. They own the majority of the shares after all. Celtic is run like a corporate business who can do what they like. Except it’s not a corporate business, it’s a football club. Businesses have customers who can come and go as they please, football clubs have supporters who are emotionally invested and the only “come and go” option is to chuck the sport altogether – something which isn’t easy to do when you’re emotionally invested.
For me, football clubs really should be more of a “one member, one vote” setup. They have it at Barcelona, although if you need any more evidence that even the “one member, one vote” setup isn’t perfect then that’s it. But at least those who run the club are answerable to those who support it. Those who run the club can be thrown out at regular intervals. That isn’t the case at Celtic right now, the board can do what they want. And they do.
Back on the pitch, one of my criticisms of the current Celtic squad was that they don’t interact with the fans. Aside from one or two players, they trudge off the field to hide after a defeat. Most of them get on and off the team bus with their headphones on and ignore the fans standing outside the front door. They all train up at Lennoxtown locked away from the fans, and they rarely – if at all – turn up to supporters functions. It never used to be like this, and you don’t half long for the likes of a Tommy Burns at Celtic to sort out this kind of thing. There’s a disconnect between the fans and the players that shouldn’t be there. You could blame the money, but you only have to look across at teams in Germany to see a far more harmonious relationship between the players and the fans. I’m sure they’re all paid quite well too. Even at the big two in Spain you see fans turning up to watch training!
And then there’s the squad policy itself. I’ve lost track of what it’s supposed to be now. I used to think what we did was buy in young prospects, train them up, and sell them on for a profit. That was fine when we were scouting people like Ki, Wanyama, Forster, Hooper and Ledley. What happened to the scouting system that found them? It seems to have fallen apart. Ther’es even evidence that we’ve recognised there’s a problem, as the plan now is to loan players in for a while to see if they’re any good before we sign them on permanent deals. But even then the loans we’ve brought in don’t seem to be all that good. Something has happened in Celtic’s scouting and I’ve no idea what that is. Worse still, I’ve no idea why most of the loan deals happened in late August. It would have been far more useful to have them in for the Champions League qualification campaign! Our strategy during transfer windows is abysmal, and it has a detrimental effect on the park.
Of course, the better way to do it would be to grow your own players. Never mind bringing in young players from other clubs, pick them out of our own youth academy. When was the last time someone came through Celtic’s ranks and got sold on for decent money? Aiden McGeady? We can’t keep James Forrest fit, Callum McGregor has dropped out of the side recently, Liam Henderson seems to be favoured less by Ronny Deila than he was by Neil Lennon who wasn’t exactly famous for giving youth players a chance – something Deila apparently is – and I’ve no idea if we’ll ever see Darnell Fisher again. The transition from youth squad to first team squad has always been a tricky one, but over the decades it’s got harder and harder. Barring the odd one or two it hasn’t really happened for a long, long time. Most of what comes through Celtic’s youth system ends up plying their trade at other clubs in Scotland, and usually at no financial benefit to Celtic.
These are just a few things that I think need to change at Celtic. Give the SLO proper control. Implement proper communication between all of the fans and the board through the SLO – not just the handpicked ones that will tell the board what they want to hear. Freshen up the board with new people and new ideas – people we’ve asked to put there for the right reasons. Implement “one member, one vote” at the football club. Bring back proper player interaction with the support. Fix the scouting and youth policies. That’s not even mentioning the Living Wage which for me should be an absolute given at Celtic.
I don’t expect all of them to be implemented. I’m happy to have them shot down to be honest, as long as there’s justification for doing so and suggestions for what to do as an alternative. I know I don’t have all of the answers, but I’m positive that answers will be within the Celtic support somewhere. What is clear to me though is that things need to change at Celtic, and things need to be seen to be changing. If even some of these suggestions can do that then maybe we can start to get the fans engaged with the club once more, and fill Celtic Park again.